DIRIGIBLE was the third one word titled adventure film in a row Frank Capra(billed in the credits as Frank R. Capra) directed that also starred Jack Holt and Ralph Graves. It was Columbia Pictures most ambitious project to date, their most expensive film ever made with a $650,000 budget. A push was made for it to be a big, successful film for more than just the financial aspects. The plan was for it to move Columbia from a small fish in a big pond to swimming with the big boys.
The plot here is an audacious plan to reach the South Pole. Explorer Louis Rondelle had spent forty years trying to get there and he know prevails upon assistance from the Navy for his latest attempt. Jack Bradon(Jack Holt) convinces the admiral to offer the ship he commands, the dirigible USS Pensacola to the expedition and requests his best friend “Frisky” Pierce to pilot the biplane that will be carried on the airship.
The two had been friends for years and Braedon had served as best man for Frisky’s wedding to Helen(Fay Wray), a woman he loved just as much. Helen hated what her husband did, fearing for his life every time he went up on one of his little junkets.
You see, Frisky loved the attention, the adoring crowds, the publicity he garners from his acrobatics in his planes. A shelf full of trophies attest to all his triumphs. In their two years of marriage, they only actually spent about two months together. He was forever off for some competition or flight show. Just this same day, he completed a cross country hop and, instead of coming home, he was off for parties and interviews without seeing her. She’d wrote him a letter outlining her fears and made him promise to read it as soon as he finished the flight. naturally, in all the hoopla, he forgets it.
When she hears Bradon ask him to go on the South Pole expedition, and Frisky agreeing, she meets Braedon in secret later and begs him not to take Frisky and not tell him that she had asked. Bradon loves her and agrees. Frisky doesn’t take it well and he allows him to believe he didn’t want to share the glory. It ends their friendship, with frisky peomising Bradon HE will get to the South Pole first.
The Pensacola launches to great publicity and speculation about why Frisky was pulled at the last minute and soon runs into trouble. A strong storm will intersect their path before they can get near the Antarctic coast. Braedon is sure they can beat it though. He’s wrong and the violent winds and rain rip the big dirigible apart, plunging them into the ocean.
Frisky leads the expedition that rescues the crew and flies Braedon back to Washington, still seething about being left off the expedition. He won’t speak to his old friend.
Frisky resigns his Naval commission and, with Rondelle, mounts a civilian try for the pole. Helen can’t get him to stay and writes him another letter in frustration, telling him not to open it until he gets to the South Pole. In it, she tells him that while he’s at the pole, she will be in Paris getting a divorce and begging Jack bradon to marry her. She was tired of being married to a headline.
A big ship leaves New York, goes down the coat, through the Panama Canal, and down the South American coast to Antarctica. A three engine plane will be flown by Frisky with Rondelle and two others aboard. The plan is to drop a U. S. flag from the plane on a sharpened spike to the surface. But show-off Frisky convinces Rondelle to let him land so he can plant the flag by hand.
The plane flips on something, lands upside down, and catches fire. Rondelle has a broken leg, one of the others has a badly damaged foot, and they rescue few supplies from the burning wreck. Nine hundred miles from the coastline and the ship. A rigged up generator with a telegraph unit lets the crew know what happened. It appears bleak.
Now it’s Bradon’s turn to come to the rescue. Bradon had gotten command of another dirigible, the USS Los Angeles. It takes a lot of arguing, the admiral is afraid another disaster will end lighter than air ships in the Navy service. He succeeds though.
We get a tense segment with Frisky leading the four, Rondelle on a sled dragged by the others, trying to walk out, He’s determined to get them out, having realized his foolish desire for one more headline risked then all. Rondelle knows the core, though, and doesn’t blame Frisky. He’d satisfied his lifelong ambition of reaching the pole and what happened now, with his broken leg making that plain, didn’t matter. One by one they drop off and Frisky’s eyesight is affected by the bright white snow. Soon there’s only two left, Frisky half blind, and they stumble across Rondelle’s grave, hacked out of the ice.
They’d been traveling in circles!
The Los Angeles arrives just in time to save Frisky and on the way back, he remembers he’d again forgotten the letter from Helen, after promising to read it(a fact she’d regretted ever since she wrote the thing in a fit of anger). Frisky asks Jack to read it to him and Jack sees the letter, making up a letter pf praise and how proud she was of him and her strong love. Bradon knew she still loved him and sacrifices his chances with her, knowing it would ultimately be doomed. And a “wisp” of wind “somehow’ manges to yank the letter out of his hand and out the window of the dirigible.
The ultimate irony here is the big parade planned for them in New York has only Bradon to fete. Frisky, eyesight recovered finally, slips away and joins hims wife, his hell raising days over. We see Bradon with a somewhat odd expression on his face as the parade takes off.
I liked this one. Capra was a relative unknown at the time, certainly not the acclaim he was afforded later in his career.
For more overlooked movies, check out Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.